Tender Mercies

Universal Pictures; directed by Bruce Beresford

If there is a heartland left in America, it is located in the region of the soul. The only road maps there are in the lines that run like back roads from eyes familiar with the highs and lows of the terrain. Tender Mercies is a privileged glimpse through such eyes to one man’s interior landscape; it is the simple story of yet one more prodigal’s search for grace and peace.

In an age of cynicism and despair, this gentle film is unusual in its reaffirmation of values more primal than traditional—as our concepts of tradition are washed away and redefined in successive waves of media interpretation. Faith, family, hearth: these are the treasures of righteousness—costume jewelry to some, but good as gold to those of a simpler time and place. Into such a world steps Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a one-time country music giant whose public career and personal life have been destroyed by “too much apple jack.” He takes a handyman job at an isolated Texas motel, and quickly falls in love and marries his employer, a young widow (Tess Harper) with an inquisitive son (Allan Hubbard). Her faithful prayers and the “tender mercies” of God quietly aid Mac in his tentative search for personal redemption. His convalescent isolation slowly heals the open wounds of vulnerability. In the end, Mac has established a truce with his pain and doubt. Although his honesty prevents a final surrender to blind faith, his instincts tell him he has reached the borders of God’s merciful paradise.

It is ironic, but not surprising, that this delicious slice of Americana was directed by a foreign film maker. Often it is those from outside our borders who are better at analyzing the state of the union than those within (see de Tocqueville). Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, The Getting of Wisdom) is an astute observer of life’s simple pleasures. His camera lingers leisurely at moments of tender human interactions as if reluctant to withdraw. The small details of rural Texas life lend an air of precise authenticity. Yet the film truly belongs to its coproducers, Horton Foote and Robert Duvall. Foote’s screenplay is as spare as the dry Texas landscape; eloquence is not always found in the preponderance of words. The people in this film speak volumes in simple phrases muttered in quiet living rooms, over the day’s laundry or the evening meal. The same warm humanity that characterized Foote’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is evident in this lovely human drama. Robert Duvall’s subdued performance is flawless—perhaps the best of his career. He is supported by a fine cast of Texas actors. Mac’s angelic wife, newcomer Tess Harper, is faith and patience personified, and Allan Hubbard’s delightful portrayal of young Sonny is amusing and exact.

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Tender Mercies contains enough doubt to keep it from being a simple gospel tract. When tragedy strikes, Mac questions God’s selective mercies. While acknowledging the healing powers of his amazing grace, this spiritually wounded man fails to understand why good fortune and divine forgiveness are not meted out equally to other victims along the road: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did.” Yet he is baptized in a small Texas church—an act of penitence, perhaps, or a willful step of faith after a life of stumbling. Following their mutual immersion, Sonny asks his stepfather: “I don’t feel different; do you feel different?”

“Not yet,” is the reply.

But it is clear that Mac has grown comfortable with happiness. His family and his tenuous belief, for the time being, keep his deep-seated anguish at bay. Tender Mercies is almost reverential in its regard for the complex human emotions of this fragile man. In its profound respect for religious faith and honest doubt, this film honors the God in whom these characters trust. Such an accomplishment demands the support of thoughtful Christian filmgoers everywhere.

Return Of The Jedi

Twentieth Century-Fox;

a Lucasfilm Production

Once upon a time, in the green fields of Ireland, druids worshiped a god of literature. Ogma was his name, and he was said to have eager listeners dangling from his eloquent tongue on slender golden chains. Now, 1,500 years since Saint Patrick drove those hooded priests from their mounds, we of a more enlightened age cling to every imaginative word from the mouth of filmmaker/wizard George Lucas. Some things never change.

Since the 1977 release of Star Wars, millions have donned their Dr. Dentons and allowed George to tell his magnificent bedtime stories. Return of the Jedi is the final episode of the epic space trilogy: it is a giddy, fully satisfying summation. For those of us who have grown attached to these characters, it is a bittersweet finale. We have aged together as good friends, weathered the terrible truths of self-knowledge, and arrived with our hope intact.

The heart of the matter is captured when C-3PO, that golden robot, stands in the flickering light of a campfire surrounded by an enraptured tribe of furry little Ewoks listening breathlessly as he retells the Star Wars saga. Yet there is something sad about our friends becoming legends in the middle of the tale. At the height of their powers, all that’s left is epilogue and farewell. This sense of loss gives Jedi a poignancy.

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Lucas’s peculiar, antiquated romanticism seems visionary in light of the phenomenal success of his films. Those who would criticize them as being technologically cold and simplistic fail to appreciate the complexity and breathtaking beauty of the craftsmanship. To view a Lucas film is to step into the very engine of his imagination and watch the spark plugs fire. While lacking profound insights into the human condition, Jedi nevertheless proffers that incomparable gift of all good fiction—the opportunity to visit inaccessible regions and experience impossible adventures. Quite simply, Lucas and his talented artisans have constructed an extravagant cathedral of dreams.

Part of Lucas’s genius is his ability to breathe life into one-dimensional roles. By placing his creations in fantastic surroundings, with absolute evil to confront and conquer, he mythologizes characters already steeped in romantic associations: the smuggler, the princess, the knight. The entire undertaking then proceeds with all seriousness, balanced by a healthy sense of irony that combines to transform these overwrought thespians into endearing friends.

Furthermore, the performers’ acting abilities have progressed with the growth of their characters. Mark Hamill especially excels as the impetuous Luke Sky-walker. The bulk of Jedi’s story is on his shoulders, and he carries the load admirably. These actors are more than mere rabbits for Lucas to pull from his hat. They are believable, and enthusiastic enough to convince all but the most hardened cynics.

C. S. Lewis once said, “A great myth is relevant as long as the predicament of humanity lasts.… It deals with the permanent and inevitable.” In a world that has become altogether too inevitable—where TV sitcoms have supplanted fairy tales—Jedi and its companion works seem to have met a real need in the human heart for heroic ideals, for strong moral delineation, and for naive, unaffected entertainment. Lucas’s combination of ancient myths and future technology is nothing short of brilliant. This final movie in particular connects powerfully with its pre-Christian mythic roots. Better still is its emphasis on the importance of the soul: we have a dark side, to be sure; but we are not mechanistic, be we human or alien. Evil may be inherent, but it is something we choose freely. And there is redemption even for the darkest of creatures. Such is the relevance Lewis spoke of: “It will always work,” he says, “on those who can receive it … as long as humanity lasts.”

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Now, all of this is good news, but it is not the gospel and shouldn’t be thought of as such. Unfortunately, many Christians will view the hoopla surrounding this movie as competition for the kingdom. But there is no need for apologetics. There is no danger here. Those who vilify the sublime fall into the same trap as those without the church, for it is cynicism, and profanity in the true sense of the word, that are the enemies. Not wonder. And certainly not creativity. The heavens declare God’s glory because they point to a cosmic designer. Art is mere imitation, but it is, to quote G. K. Chesterton, “the signature of Man” because it points to our divine origins, to the Creator. Return of the Jedi is a celebration of friendship, valor, and superb craftsmanship. It is entertainment as theology, declaring the presence of the holy hand that forged the stars and rolled the planets into their orbits.

Reviewed by Harry Cheney, a writer living in Southern California.

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